Commuting Like a Pro—From Brooklyn to East Harlem (And Back Again)

When I tell people that I commute back and forth between East Harlem and where I live in Brooklyn, they’re always surprised as to why I chose not to dorm on campus at Aron Hall. My response is that commuting is what I’m used to. I spent four years commuting to Hunter College and loved being in the city during the day and coming home to my family at night. Of course, commuting can be tough too.

Getting up early to make it to class, traveling in difficult weather, and dealing with subway delays, and other subway quirks, can be challenging at times. But it’s worked out with minimal issues this first year, and I hope to continue it through my second year of medical school. (I’m not sure where I’ll live during my third year when I’ll have to be in the wards at the crack of dawn, but I still have some time to figure that one out.)

So with that in mind, I decided to document my travels so that others can see how I spend my days as a commuter med student.

Brooklyn at 6:45 am.

This morning, I wake up before my alarm goes off (which never happens by the way). Over the year, I’ve been experimenting with different alarm times ranging from 7 am to 7:30 am—in 15-minute intervals.. They all actually work out pretty well. I could probably even afford to get up a bit later, but I like having the extra time just in case there are subway delays. Once I get to school, I use the time before class to grab a snack, check emails, print lecture slides, or whatever else needs to get done that particular morning.

I usually like to eat a small breakfast in the morning before I leave the apartment, but today I decide to just grab something when I get to school.

I also like to have music playing in the background in the mornings. It just gets me pumped and ready for the day ahead.

Brooklyn at 8 am.

I leave the apartment at a good time this morning. Sometimes, if I’m running late, I’ll leave five to fifteen minutes later, but it doesn’t usually make a big difference because of that extra time that I’ve built in.

I have a 10-minute walk to the train station, which I usually spend in my head, thinking about the day ahead of me—something I’m both excited and worried about as I go over concepts from class and daydream. (I’m working on getting out of my head during this walk because I think it’s a good meditative time.)

Today, I’ll be taking the Q train all the way up to the 96th St station for the first time, which I’m super excited about. I remember the first time that I saw the construction around the Second Avenue line when I was a freshman at Hunter back in 2011. Back then, its completion, as well as med school, seemed so far away. It’s amazing that I now get to ride through those tunnels all the way to Mount Sinai.

As soon as I get on the train, I see this great poem by Billy Collins called “Subway” with a piece from Sarah Sze’s incredible Blueprint for a Landscape”, which is visible in full glory along the walls of the 96th St station.

Courtesy of the MTA

So what do I do on my long train rides? Lots of things: I read articles/books, I go over lecture material, I daydream, I people watch, I write poetry, and sometimes, when I’m really tired, I just close my eyes and attempt to rest without missing my stop.

East Harlem at 9:30 am.

I make it to a sunny and warm 96th St and take a couple of minutes to take in the new station. It’s well-lit, well-ventilated, and clean! I then head over to Superior Café to grab an everything bagel with cream cheese.

East Harlem between 10 am and 1 pm.

I have two 50-minute introductory lectures to immunology and pathology. In my first year of school, I’ve taken notes on lecture slides that I’ve printed out, written out notes by hand, or used a laptop. It just depends on how a particular professor presents the info and how I think I can best absorb it. Flexibility in note-taking and study habits is a skill that has been super useful thus far.

I personally like watching lectures live because I feel more connected to the experience that way. I also like that there are other people there, and it’s not just me in my room in Brooklyn. But having optional recorded lectures has been great for when I’ve been sick and couldn’t make it to class or when I just want to study a particular set of lectures a bit more before I go on to the next couple.

I love sitting in the front row, which is the place that almost no one wants to sit in because they feel that it’s intimidating. But I feel more connected to the professor and less distracted by what other people are doing during lecture.

After our two lectures, we have a class meeting with Med Ed where they debrief us on what to expect for the upcoming semester. (And Student Council brings bagels, cream cheese, and coffee to tide everyone over until lunch!)

East Harlem between 1 pm and 4 pm.

I’ve been craving pizza for the last week so I grab a slice at Famous Famiglia (Madison Ave and 97th St). I normally eat much healthier and definitely more than a slice of pizza for lunch, but since today is a short school day (Flex Time is a wonderful thing), it’ll be enough until I get home.

I also run errands at Whole Foods, Citibank, and Walgreens. I’m one of those odd people who loves to run errands and my MetroCard is my partner in crime throughout the day.

Brooklyn between 4 pm and 11 pm.

 I come home at different times depending on the day, but today, I come home relatively early.

Before I officially unwind, I:

  • Do some light review of the lectures slides.
  • Catch up with my family.
  • Complete a number of miscellaneous tasks like checking my email, updating my calendar, and cleaning my room.
  • Stretch and practice yoga—which I try to do daily since it helps alleviate any stiffness from sitting throughout the day and gives me a chance to just have some quiet time to myself.

Before I go to sleep, I like to get everything ready for the next morning so that I’m not rushing around trying to put a bag together. I try to get to bed by 11 pm or earlier every night because if it’s any later, I’m like a zombie the next day. No all-nighters for this med student!

I keep a sign on my desk that reminds me to just take it easy and breathe. Life is better when done slowly and with presence of mind, which is exactly what a lifelong New Yorker and freshly minted med student needs.


Slavena Salve Nissan is a first-year medical student and an aspiring physician-writer who can never have too many love poems in her life. She is the student leader of Sinai Arts, a contributor for the AAMC’s Aspiring Docs Diaries, and a medical student editor for in-Training. You can find her poetry, photography, and thoughts on social media @slavenareina on Instagram and Twitter.

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